As we’ve lived through a global pandemic together these past few months, the strange new situations it has created have prompted us to think more deeply about some aspects of our society.
For me, one of those topics I have been pondering is the ways our society is failing our members with disabilities and chronic illness.
We talk about racism. We talk about sexism. But when is the last time you heard someone considered able-bodied use the term “ableism”?
Speaking for myself, I think I have paid less attention to this “ism” because the problems I encounter tend to manifest as more of a systemic issue than personal prejudice. I have never heard someone complain that there are too many people who use wheelchairs moving into their community, but how many times do I visit a building without thinking twice about the fact that it would be inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair?
During the pandemic, though, those prejudices have become more easily spotted. I have seen far too many comments on social media about how COVID-19 is not cause for concern because it is “just” killing the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
One of my friends from college who has Type 1 diabetes posted on Facebook that she was getting worn down by all of the people volunteering her to die as a sacrifice to the economy. When I interviewed Sara Barnett of Hermiston about her experience being hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19, she said she had been hurt by how dismissively some people had been talking about people with underlying health conditions.
“I’m 53, and yes I have some preexisting conditions, but to my family, to my friends, to my church, I am very valuable,” she told me.
For decades, sections of Hermiston’s city hall have not been accessible to people who can’t climb stairs, reducing access not only to city residents but also to potential employees. Other buildings around town are also inaccessible, as are the large number of sidewalks that have no wheelchair ramp or safety features for blind people.
In pop culture, movies such as “Me Before You” often portray people with disabilities as having a life not worth living. Websites that make money off of viral clickbait love “inspiration porn” that objectifies and exploits people with disabilities, sometimes by stealing their personal photos to use without their consent.
I personally know multiple people who have pretended that they have a disability so they can receive accommodations, such as having a pet in a pet-free apartment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017 only 35% of people with disabilities were employed. Research on the topic, including a study by Rutgers University that involved sending out 6,000 fake applications for real accounting jobs, has found that employers are less likely to interview or hire someone that they know has a disability, even when the person’s disability would not prevent them from being able to do the work.
People with health challenges can also face physical and social barriers to education, dating, medical care, transportation and more.
Since we don’t talk enough about these issues, many of us still have a lot to learn. A while ago someone emailed me to gently remind me that instead of saying the subject of a story “suffers from” a certain disability I should have said she “lives with” it, as it is not for me to assume that anyone with a disability is automatically leading a life of suffering.
There are areas we are making progress. When Hermiston builds its third iteration of Funland Playground this year, it will be designed to provide more accessibility than previous designs. The same is true of designs for a new city hall.
As Darrin Umbarger, CEO Of Clearview Mediation and Disability Resource Center in Pendleton, once told me, everyone is one accident away from having a disability. If “it’s the right thing to do” isn’t enough incentive for all of us to think more deeply about how we can make our community more accessible to all, then the thought that someday we could be the one facing these barriers should be.